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Desmond Ricks

Other Wayne County, Michigan Exonerations with Official Misconduct
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On March 3, 1992, 21-year-old Gerry Bennett was fatally shot standing outside a Top Hat Restaurant in Detroit, Michigan. He had 126 grams of cocaine in his jacket.

A witness told police that a man ran from the scene and threw off his jacket as he ran. Police found a jacket containing items linked to 25-year-old Desmond Ricks, including a personal phone book, a pass for a hospital where his girlfriend had just given birth, and a picture of his new daughter. Two days later, police arrested Ricks at the home where he lived with his mother, Mary Ricks, and confiscated a .38-caliber revolver that Mary Ricks kept under her pillow.

In September 1992, Ricks went to trial in Wayne County Circuit Court on charges of second-degree murder and illegal use of a firearm.

Arlene Strong, an employee of the restaurant, testified that Bennett and another man came into the restaurant. Bennett placed an order and the other man remained off to the side. Strong testified that both men then walked outside. When the order was ready, she was about to summon Bennett on the restaurant intercom when she looked through a narrow window and saw Bennett get shot. Strong said the gunman was a light-skinned man of medium height. Ricks was 6 feet, 4 inches tall and dark skinned, but she said that although she could not be sure, it was possible the shooter was Ricks.

A medical examiner testified that two bullets were recovered from Bennett’s body—one from his brain and another from his spine. Dr. Sawait Kanluen, the medical examiner, reported that the bullets were “small” lead slugs.

Ollie McAdoo testified that he pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant where he saw two men talking. He entered the restaurant and sat down. Both men came in, although he didn’t pay them much attention. He said that shortly thereafter, he heard three or four gunshots and saw one of the two lying outside. McAdoo said the gunman was the “smaller guy.”

Howard Dillworth testified that he was in his car approaching a traffic light near the restaurant when he heard three shots. He turned and saw one man fall to the ground and another man running away, “slipping out” of his jacket as he fled. Dillworth said the man fleeing was at least 200 to 300 feet away when he saw the other man collapse. Dillworth had viewed a lineup containing Ricks, but could not identify him.

Detroit police officer David Pauch testified as an expert in ballistics. He stated that the two bullets in evidence were fired from the .38-caliber revolver that came from Ricks’s mother, Mary Ricks, and from “no other weapon.”

David Townshend, another ballistics expert, had been appointed by the judge to examine the bullets. He testified for the prosecution that the bullets did come from Mary Ricks’s gun, consistent with Pauch’s conclusion.

Mary Ricks testified that Ricks did not have access to the gun on the day of the crime or any other day. She told the jury that she had quarreled with Ricks on the day before the shooting and ordered him out of the house because he had not spent enough time at the hospital with his newborn child. She told the jury that the gun was in her hand when she threw him out of the house and that she slept with it under her pillow that night.

Mary Ricks also told the jury that her son did not have a key to the home and could not have returned without her knowledge, let alone come in to get the gun. Finally, she told the jury, “Nobody on the planet Earth ever knew where my gun was in the 10 or 12 years I have had it.”

She also testified that when the police came to arrest her son, they asked if she kept a gun in the house. She led the officers to her bedroom and pulled out the gun, telling them it was loaded. She said that one of the officers commented that the gun had not been fired recently, but another officer said to take it anyway.

Ricks testified that on the day of the shooting, Bennett agreed to give him a ride to his girlfriend’s house. On the way, Bennett pulled his red Ford Escort into the Top Hat parking lot. A few minutes later, Ricks said, a yellow Monte Carlo with three men pulled next to the Escort. Bennett and the backseat passenger from the Monte Carlo went into the restaurant and Ricks stayed in the car.

Ricks testified that several minutes later, he watched in the rear view mirror as the man from the Monte Carlo pointed a chrome pistol at Bennett and shot him in the abdomen. Ricks said he jumped out of the car and saw the man shoot Bennett in the head. Ricks said he yelled and the gunman turned and fired a shot at Ricks, who then fled. He said he heard one more shot as he ran.

Ricks testified that he shed his coat as he ran to avoid getting caught in bushes. He said he tried to find someone to call police, but after one resident refused to help him, he hid in nearby bushes because he was afraid the gunman would be coming after him. When he heard sirens, he came out. About a block away, Gloria Jean Jones allowed him into her home to use the telephone.

Jones testified that Ricks was shaking, crying, and too nervous and upset to make the call. She said she asked him if he wanted to go to the Top Hat and he declined, saying he was too scared. Jones said that after Ricks calmed down, she drove him to his mother’s house.

In closing argument, the prosecution stressed that the ballistics evidence was the “most powerful evidence” in the case. “This gun that killed Gerry Bennett was found at his house,” the prosecutor declared.

On September 23, 1992, the jury convicted Ricks of second-degree murder and illegal use of a firearm. He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison. His appeals were denied.

In 2008, the Detroit police crime lab was shut down after an audit performed by the Michigan State Police exposed widespread errors in ballistics testing.

In 2010, Claudia Whitman, founder of the National Capital Crime Assistance Network, a nonprofit organization that provides an array of services to the incarcerated, including investigating cases of wrongful conviction, met with Ricks at the urging of another prisoner whose case she was investigating. Whitman began investigating Ricks’s case at that time.

That same year, Ricks wrote to Townshend, the court-appointed ballistics expert, and Townshend agreed to meet Ricks in prison. During their conversation, Townshend said he had been troubled by Ricks’s case, particularly because the bullets he had been given to examine back in 1992 were in “near pristine condition.” Townshend had performed thousands of bullet comparisons over nearly two decades. He noted that these two bullets did not show any of the deformations that normally occur when a bullet is removed from the body of a murder victim—and there was no hair, blood, bone, or other materials on them.

Whitman worked with Townshend to find his records and discovered that he had neglected to mark down, as he normally did, the condition of the bullets. However, Towshend had noted that the evidence was not sealed, suggesting that the bullets from the victim may have been swapped out.

In 2015, the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, which had been re-investigating Ricks’s case since 2012, got digital photographs of the bullets held in evidence at the Detroit Police Department and sent them to Townshend.

Townshend immediately saw that in contrast to the bullets he had examined in 1992, the bullets in the photos were severely mutilated. In fact, he concluded that the bullets were so badly damaged that he doubted whether they could ever be matched to a firearm.

The Innocence Clinic contacted Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, chief medical examiner for Oakland County. Dragovic re-examined the autopsy report and concluded that the reference to the recovered bullets as “small” meant that the slugs were .22- or .25-caliber bullets. Dragovic said that .38-caliber bullets—the size that would have been fired by Mary Rick’s revolver—would have been described as “large.”

By that time, Whitman had tracked down Arlene Strong. A team of student-lawyers from the Innocence Clinic and a private investigator working on Ricks’s case obtained an affidavit from Arlene Strong recanting her trial testimony. In the sworn statement, Strong said that in fact she saw Ricks in the red Escort “one second” before she saw the man from the yellow Monte Carlo fire a “silver” pistol that killed Bennett.

Strong said that police showed her the .38-caliber pistol they took from Mary Ricks. She told them it was not the murder weapon because she saw a silver gun, but the police and prosecutor bullied her and threatened to arrest her if she did not testify. In her affidavit, Strong said it would have been physically impossible for Ricks to run from his seat in the car to the position outside the window in time to fire the shots. She said she always had known that the gunman came from the yellow Monte Carlo.

In July 2016, the Michigan Innocence Clinic filed a petition for relief from judgment, and requested that the bullets be subjected to new ballistics testing. The petition contended that police had falsely testified that the bullets were fired from Mary Ricks’s gun. They then switched the bullets so that Townshend was given slugs that had been fired by the gun taken from Mary Ricks.

In April 2017, a state police re-examination of the bullets concluded that the bullets were too mangled to link them to any gun. A separate state police report based on a different ballistics testing method than the one the police crime lab used in 1992 determined that one of the bullets had been fired from a different gun—not the gun that Mary Ricks kept under her pillow.

On May 26, 2017, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office joined in the defense motion to vacate Ricks’s convictions and he was released from prison. On June 1, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

In August 2017, Ricks filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from the city of Detroit.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/6/2017
Last Updated: 8/24/2017
State:Michigan
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1992
Convicted:1992
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:30 to 60 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:25
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No